See Inside April/May 2006

Bird Brains? Hardly

Parrots demonstrate impressive cognitive feats that rival the talents of chimps and dolphins

The telephone rings. A man hurries through his apartment, picks up the handset and says hello. Yet the ringing continues--because the sound came from the mans pet parrot. The owner shoots the bird a nasty glare as he hangs up, mutters about being fooled again and stalks out of the room.

Scenes like this, used in cartoons and comedies, are based on the fascinating ability of parrots to closely mimic common sounds and human voices. But some cognitive scientists who have spent years working with parrots are convinced that these birds, and others, are capable of much more. According to the experts, the animals can not only understand what we say and respond sensibly, but they can also grasp higher concepts such as "same or different" and the continued existence--or permanence--of objects that are shown and then hidden from view. The implication is that parrots and other avian groups, despite their simple-looking brains, may in some ways be as intelligent as primates and aquatic standouts such as dolphins.

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